An unusual scene took place recently in the West Bank Jewish community of Efrat, where a group of about 75 residents met with the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, who sought to convince them to consider giving up their homes and move back to Israel proper.

Not surprisingly there was deep disagreement. But both sides concurred that the discussion was civil, serious and dealt not only with the fate of the settlers themselves but the fate of the State of Israel.

Rabbi Baruch Efrati, a religious Zionist who represented his community, Zayit Raanan, within Efrat, which initiated the meeting, says he believes ceding the land would be “a disaster” — a violation of a Torah command and a major security risk.

He says the question of whether he would leave if told by the state to do so is “tearing me apart,” but in the end, he said that while he would not go voluntarily, for the unity of the state, he would not resist.

Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet and former member of Knesset, who met with the rabbi and others, maintains that bringing the settlers back into Israel, painful as it would be, is the only way to ensure that the state will remain both Jewish and democratic.

The discussion in Efrat was one of several that have taken place between leaders of settlement communities, including those in illegal outposts, and officials of a new group Ayalon helped found that has been working quietly in Israel over the last year to promote a planned, orderly and dignified absorption of Jewish settlers within the Green Line.

Ayalon, former commander in chief of the Israeli navy and a leader of the peace camp in recent years, says the issue is not just about accommodating the Palestinians but doing what is best for Israel. “The major threat we face is not security but an Israel that will be a state to two peoples,” he said. And he believes the solution is absorbing a large percentage of the settlers inside the Green Line.

No one expects the issue to be resolved easily or anytime soon. The peace talks show little progress, and after the traumatic evacuation of some 8,000 Jews from Gaza — many of whom remain without permanent housing more than five years later — the prospect of convincing or coercing an estimated 80,000 to 130,000 West Bank settlers to leave to make a peace agreement possible is beyond daunting.

But Ayalon’s group, known as Blue-White Future, says the issue must be on the public agenda, and acted on, in part to prove to the Palestinians that Israel is serious about negotiations — increasing the number of settlers over the years is a major source of contention — and to preserve the state’s Jewish majority and democratic form of government.

 

Outcomes And Sacrifices

One of the tragic ironies of the Mideast peace impasse is that for all of the on-again and mostly off-again negotiations over the last 17 years, the basic parameters of the outcome and the sacrifices that will need to be made are well known.

If and when a two state-solution is reached, Israel will swap territories for Palestinian pledges of recognition, secure borders, etc. And one of the key components — and sticking points — is that tens of thousands of Jews living in the West Bank will have to give up their homes and settle within Israel’s permanent boundaries.

Recognizing that fact, and fully aware of the absorption failures for those Jews who lived in Gush Katif at the time of the Gaza pullout, the founders of Blue-White Future have a three-pronged action plan aimed at the government and the public, particularly those whose politics are moderate to right-wing:

n The call for public discourse focuses on portraying the settlers in a positive light and emphasizing the difficulties they will face in leaving their homes.

“There are some Israelis who see the settlers as obstacles to peace,” said Ayalon. “We see them as pioneers. We — both Labor and Likud governments — sent them on a mission, and they have completed that mission.”

n Advocacy for legislation to offer government compensation is intended to encourage pragmatic settlers to relocate rather than wait to be evacuated. Blue-White Future officials estimate that about 20 percent of the settlers would leave willingly, perhaps even before an agreement with the Palestinians is reached. (It is estimated that another 10-15 percent of settlers are hard-core and will have to be removed by force; the hope is that the majority might be persuaded to leave before being evacuated, if given financial help and assurances that they can be readily resettled.)

n Extensive regional and urban planning is under way, via experts from Haifa’s Technion, to show that large numbers of settlers can be absorbed while “retaining the integrity of the original communities,” says Orni Petruschka, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Blue-White Future, which is funding the effort.

“We’re in the planning stage,” says Gilead Sher, another co-founder of the Blue-White Future. The goal is to be prepared to put into place in the next 10 years a proposal to relocate 100,000 people.

A prominent attorney and former co-chief negotiator with the Palestinians at Camp David (2000) and Taba (2001), Sher said that forums with mayors and municipal leaders are planned to hear their ideas and spur the government into resettlement action. And a public relations campaign in the U.S. is being discussed.

There is dispute among the Blue-White Future leaders as to whether a referendum should be required for a clear mandate of approval for relocating settlers, but they agree that a strong sense of the will of the majority of the Israeli people is necessary before any action is taken.

 

‘We Love The Army’

Despite various polls of settlers regarding their politics and ideology, it is difficult to predict their reactions to plans to have them give up their homes and way of life, especially when a peace deal with the Palestinians seems so remote.

Rabbi Efrati says his ideals, raised as a religious Zionist, were that the State of Israel and the land of Israel were joined. Now, he acknowledges, he is being confronted with the notion of having to make the agonizing choice between them.

“We are facing the serious problem of evacuating many people,” he said. “My heart tells me to deny it, but my brain tells me” otherwise.

“We need to have protests [against a possible evacuation] and education, and we need to speak of the love for the Jewish people.”

The rabbi, who is active in an organization promoting the concept of shared citizenship among all seven million Israelis, Jewish and Arab, says he believes that Jews are commanded not to give up land in Israel. But he would not call for resisting army commands, saying, “We love the army, we are the army; they are our flesh and blood.”

Orni Petruschka says it is important for Israelis to recognize and empathize with the plight of the settlers.

“We believe the entire discourse in our society has to change,” he said. “In discussing the settlers, it’s not about ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It’s about trying to create a clear Jewish majority in the state of the Jewish people, and the need for democracy. There is no other choice, but we need to pay a price for that, and those who will pay the dearest price are the settlers.”

While pragmatists would agree that any peace agreement with the Palestinians will require relocating large numbers of settlers, some Mideast observers question whether now is the right time to raise the issue.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says, “the concept [of the Blue-White Future initiative] is great, over time, but until the issue of borders is settled, it makes little sense.”

But Ami Ayalon says that regardless of the timing of an agreement, the movement of settlers into Israel proper is necessary for the state to remain a Jewish majority and democracy.

“The biggest challenge we face,” he said, “is to create hope among Israelis.

“We have had too many disappointments,” he said, noting that at the beginning of the Oslo agreements of 1993, Israelis “really believed.” But with the outbreak of the intifada in 2000, “there was the loss of hope.

“It’s very difficult to ignite that hope again. But that is what we must do and appeal to the logic of the Jewish people.”

Gary@jewishweek.org